Behaviour based safety systems

Behaviour based safety (BBS), also known as Behavioural safety, is a process of improving safety performance through changing the way people behave. It achieves this through a systematic application of phychological research on human behaviour to the problems of safety in the workplace. If used correctly and consistently its application creates culture where:

  • Crew members on each ship take responsibility for their own and each other's safety
  • Unsafe acts and conditions are not tolerated

Practical experience so far in companies adopted behavioural safety programmes has shown that significant improvements in safety performance have been achieved using behaviour intervention systems leading to improved KPI performance.

Background of BBS

Research carried out in the early 1990's indicated that a significant amount of accidents (in excess of 80%) are caused by human error of some sort. Hence in almost all accidents, somewhere along the line, someone did something to trigger a failure that in turn contributed to the accident.

This may have been poor design, inappropriate procedures, incorrect maintenance; wrong parts ordered or supplied - any number of things. This is generally made worse by those that may have recognized the potential for an accident or incident failing to raise their concerns or intervene in a timely manner.

It is considered, therefore, that utilizing behavioural safety observation and intervention techniques, coupled with proactive reporting of unsafe acts and conditions, as a means of engendering an improved safety culture, both on board ships and ashore, could contribute significantly to a reduction in incidences of complacency.

It is well known that a research by Bird, into more than two million workplace accidents, showed that, for every event leading to a fatality, there may be more than ten that lead to a serious injury, 30 property damage accidents and 600 incidents that did not lead to damage or injury (near miss incidents).

Out of these statistics it is clear that for every one iincident observed there are more than 15 cases of unsafe acts or conditions that did not result in incidents or accidents.

The figure can change with different industries but the relationship between them is usually very similar. As a result by focusing on refusing the unsafe acts and conditions at the lower end of the triangle, a company may reduce and even eliminate accidents that have more serious consequences.

Behavioural safety relies on observation and intervention techniques and proactive reporting of unsafe acts and conditions to improve safety culture on board ships and ashore and contribute to a reduction in accidents in the long term.

Behavioural safety and how it works

Behavioural safety is a way of improving safety performance through changing the way people behave. It requires crew members on each ship to take responsibility for their own and each other's safety and to ensure that unsafe acts and conditions are not tolerated.

Behavioural safety aims to develop a culture in which crew members take responsibility for their own and each other's safety. It relies upon peer pressure - crew members need to be prepared to challenge, and be challenged by, their colleagues, though not in a confrontational manner. It is a key principle of behavioural safety that officers can be observed by ratings - it is not a "top-down" policy. Everyone may be observed by everyone else.

Safe behaviours are encouraged through positive reinforcement (praise), whilst unsafe behaviours are tackled through an effective review process. The system should be designed to encourage teamwork as well as personal and group responsibility: a 'brother's keeper' attitude.

An effective behavioural safety system should work within and enhance the company's safety management system

Key principles

The key foundations of a Behavioural Safety are :

  • A behaviour which is followed by a "positive reinforcement", will be repeated
  • A behaviour which is followed by a "negative reinforcement", will cease in time
  • Positive reinforcement has been found to be more powerful than negative reinforcement

Just culture

A just culture is essential for behavioural safety.The aim is to ensure that unsafe behaviours are corrected, not punished.

Proactive reporting

Behavioural safety policies encourage crew members to recognise and report unsafe acts and unsafe conditions - whether of not they result in harm. An "unsafe act / unsafe condition" form may be used for such reporting.


A behaviour is defined as an observable act.If it is possible to take a picture of an action and show it to another person, it can be considered to be a behaviour. An observation system involves a short, planned observation of one or more crew members carrying out a task in the workplace during normal daily duties. It should take normally no longer than five minutes.

Unsafe behaviours are those that clearly increase the potential for an incident. For example, a person working aloft/overside with no safety belt is certainly significantly increasing the risk to himself. In the workplace, any behaviour is unsafe if it clearly puts the individual or their colleagues at increased risk of harm.

The observer notes both safe and unsafe behaviours and conditions, as well as any actions that make him uncomfortable. For example, if observing an engineer working with bare wires, the observer would not know if they were live and thus dangerous, or isolated and thus safe.

The observer makes notes of what he has observed. This is then followed by a feedback conversation where the observer discusses what he has noted, starting with the positives to reinforce the safe behaviour, then asking the observed to describe any unsafe behaviour they were aware of and finally discussing any unsafe behaviours or concerns they had.

Tools for observation

An important tool is a checklist that reflects the company's system for accident reporting. This should include a list of 'key behaviours' that are requirements in the safety management system.


Following the observation, the observer needs to provide feedback to the observed person(s). The feedback session should always begin positively by highlighting safe behaviours that have been observed. The observer must give credit for the proper use of safe procedures - this is an example of positive reinforcement.

Feedback should identify what is being done well, what is not being done so well and could be improved and any barriers to improvement. Joint agreement on corrective actions should follow.

Where unsafe behaviours have been observed, the observer should encourage the observed person to take corrective action. Often they will know what they are doing wrong and how to put things right. Any barriers to safe behaviour that are identified should be noted and an action plan to remove them agreed.

An example of an unsafe behaviour could be a failure to wear safety goggles when carrying out a task for which goggles are required. The observer should ask what prevented the seafarer from wearing goggles. The reason may be that an insufficient quantity of serviceable goggles was available for use.

The feedback session should always conclude on a positive note and the persons involved should be thanked for their assistance.

System Safeguards and Interventions

All company employees onboard and ashore should be prepared to intervene when an unsafe act or condition is observed. The same techniques used for the behavioural safety observation system feedback are used for the Safeguard/intervention conversation. More specifically the following points should be reviewed :

  • What could go wrong
  • How would you get hurt
  • How can you stop anyone getting hurt
  • Identify any barriers to safe behaviour
  • Ensure unsafe act or condition is corrected before work recommences
  • Gain a commitment for long term change

When analysing unsafe behaviour:

  • Address the behaviour, not the person e.g. if a crew member is observed not wearing appropriate PPE, ask "why do people not always use PPE when performing this task" rather than "why did you not use your PPE?"
  • Ask the person observed what they consider to be the consequences of the unsafe behaviour
  • Identify the root cause of the unsafe behaviour - several observed unsafe behaviours may stem from a single root cause and can therefore be eradicated if the root cause is tackled effectively
  • Be aware that unsafe behaviour may arise from a misunderstanding of the ship operator's procedure. Another possibility is that the procedure itself is flawed.


Reporting should be open, prompt and accurate within a frame of a no-blame culture. In accordance with a just culture, individuals involved in events to which the reports refer should not be named or otherwise identifiable.

Remember that the benefits of behavioural safety policy are long-term. The number of health and safety incidents reported may increase in the short term - but a safe, well-managed company with a well-motivated workforce can expect eventually to see a reduction in incidents.

BBS System implementation Issues

The effective implementation of a behavioural safety system requires management commitment and leadership by example. However it should avoid micro-management of staff and in order to ensure 'by in' , must include commitment of crew members to the implementation of health and safety policies and programmes.

A pre-requisite for a behavioural safety policy and programme is a working environment that is safe, both in the physical sense and in how it is managed. A behavioural safety system should not replace the safety management system or any other Safe Working Practice Program. A behavioural safety policy should be developed incorporating the following elements:

  • Clearly defined expectations
  • Good communication
  • Clear leadership
  • Risk awareness
  • Accountability of all involved personnel
  • Established safety culture
  • Effective knowledge management

Behavioural safety systems cannot work in isolation and will fail unless they form part of a sound safety management system that addresses the following issues :

  • The organization should have and open and just culture
  • Management should be totally committed to supporting the system and allowing it to work, providing sufficient time and resources for those involved
  • The system must be easy to understand and implement
  • Everyone must have the opportunity to contribute and be involved
  • Training should include everyone and should be practical and interactive
  • Feedback to individuals must be open, prompt, timely and meaningful
  • Statistics must be regularly and prominently issued and communicated

Finally it is of paramount importance that for a BBS initiative to be effective it needs to be integrated within company's SMS and safety culture. It is a new challenge but it should be noted that feedback so far indicates positive results.